Published in The Financial Times

We know that Gordon Brown is being lined up to be the next leader of the Labour party. We know that Ken Clarke, David Davis and several others are lining up to lead the Conservatives. But what of the Liberal Democrats? Is there anybody in line to take over from Charles Kennedy?

Well, if we are to believe several political commentators, we need look no further than Nick Clegg, the former MEP for the East Midlands who, since the general election, has been MP for Sheffield Hallam and the Liberal Democrat spokesman on foreign affairs.

In recent months he has been labelled “young and bright”, “terribly nice, terribly clever, terribly talented”, “one of Britain’s brightest young politicians” and “the Lib Dems’ answer to Tony Blair”. Not that he wants to acknowledge such speculation.

“Look,” begins the 38-year-old, sitting in his thinly furnished constituency office in Sheffield, sounding eerily like the aforementioned prime minister. “You will not believe me, and it does sound disingenuous, but I genuinely don’t take such things seriously.”

He’s right, I don’t believe him: surely he must have been pleased at how positive the comments have been.

“The risk is that familiarity may breed disdain.” An awkward shuffle in the chair, which, like his coffee mug and his office walls, is coloured Lib Dem yellow.

What’s the worst thing that has been said about him?

“What, publicly?”

Yes: I couldn’t find a single thing.

“Um,” he mutters to himself. “There may be things I haven’t seen but, no, I can’t think of anything. But they’ll come.”

Actually, I don’t think there is anything bad to say about Clegg. I meet him on a Friday morning, at a care centre for people with learning difficulties in Sheffield, accompany him to his constituency office and then travel with him on the train back to London (he gets off at Luton to catch a flight to Spain, where his two young sons are staying with their grandparents). Throughout, he is utterly charming.

Some, I guess, may find his background a little bland (“a number of pet rabbits were once massacred by a neighbour’s dog,” he says in response to the question about whether he experienced any trauma during his upbringing). And some may be irritated by his tendency to sound like he is dictating a postgraduate essay – almost the only time he doesn’t answer a question with points (a), (b) and©, or (1), (2), (3), is when, at Sheffield station, I ask him if he fancies a sandwich (“Ham and cheese, please!”). But being upper middle class and having a highly organised mind are hardly unusual characteristics among politicians.

“I do have a privileged, affluent background,” he concedes at the beginning of our chat. “My dad was a banker, my mother was a teacher. I suppose I’m upper middle class. But I hate the way class has almost become predictive of people’s fortunes in life in this country – it really bothers me. It’s part of the reason I am attracted to liberalism, which aspires to classlessness. As someone with only one British grandparent, someone with a European upbringing, I’ve always felt distant from the British obsession with class.”

Indeed, the one thing you can’t help noticing when reading Clegg’s CV is just how European his background is: he ran bits of an EU aid programme in central Asia in the 1990s, then worked as a senior policy adviser to Leon Brittan, the then vice-president of the European Commission, before getting elected to the Strasbourg parliament on the Lib Dems’ East Midlands list in 1999.

His mother is Dutch, his father is English, his wife is Spanish and the Cambridge graduate, who has also studied in the US and Belgium, speaks four European languages besides English – a skill which he demonstrates, at my request.

“De Liberaal Democraten kunnen een partij van regering zijn straks. Er. Et. Les Democrates-Liberaux peuvent etre dans la future un partie du gouvernement. Die Liberal Partei von England kann in der Zukunft eine Partei von Regierung sein. El partido Liberal en Inglaterra puede ser un partido de gobierno en el futuro en Inglaterra. Is that OK?”

Very impressive. But does he really believe what he’s saying – that the Lib Dems can be a party of government one day?

“Yes, I do. I genuinely do. People like the way we conduct politics. They just don’t believe we can form a government. But we can persuade them that this is possible by: (a) continuing to win by-elections, building the impression that we win; (b) making sure that our policies aren’t just a series of attractive sounding propositions but a credible menu; and© talking about politics in a credible manner. I think that when the mood swings in our direction, it will be rapid. You can see that at constituency level – this seat was the safest Conservative seat in South Yorkshire until 1997. I see no reason why that can’t take place at national level.”

Of course, Clegg has only been operating “at national level” for a few months now – before that he had been drafting obscure supranational legislation on topics such as local loop unbundling in the European Parliament. He seems to be enjoying the change of scene. “I don’t know if it’s a reaction to it but I can’t help thinking how rewarding this is,” he remarks, as we get into his car after the visit to the day care centre and drive towards his constituency office – unglamorously based in a plumber’s yard. “I find it so stimulating to put flesh on politics. The European Parliament was so bloodless.”

So is that why he switched from being an MEP to an MP? “Well, there were two main reasons.” Postgraduate essay mode, again. “First, what came home to me was that while I was sitting in committee rooms in Brussels and Strasbourg, winning the battle on the fifth horse box directive or the third widget regulation, the much more important battle for the hearts and minds of British voters was being lost. Second, I just found working in three countries at once as a young dad to be unworkable really.”

His travel schedule as an MEP certainly sounds gruelling: spending time between Brussels, Strasbourg and his constituency required getting on a plane every two to three days. “Oh God, I tell you, I had completely underestimated how soul destroying the travelling would be.” He rolls his eyes and glances at the mobile phone, which has been ringing every five minutes. “I found it intellectually crippling, and, with two kids, emotionally draining. And the thing is, it became addictive – I would occasionally find myself on a plane, realising that I didn’t actually need to be on it. You start equating travelling with getting things done.”

It is a sign of just how busy his life used to be that he regards his new life as easier, even though it involves regular travel between Sheffield and London, where his wife, Miriam, is working for the Foreign Office.

As is his habit, he runs through the advantages and disadvantages of his new job in an systematic way, matching each pro with a con – for instance, while Westminster is “politically vital”, its internal culture can feel very old fashioned.

“I was recently slapped down by Ann Widdecombe when I spoke in a debate and started addressing people by their name, rather than calling them, the ‘honourable member of Little Bottom Village’ or whatever. I have already grown used to it but I would like to retain the ability to remember how utterly bizarrely it is to a newcomer. The European Parliament, by contrast, is a very young parliament and is actually rather bland. To follow a debate there is often as exciting as it is to watch paint dry.”

It is rare to hear a Lib be so openly critical about Europe but then this is one of Clegg’s things – he recently wrote a chapter in a book of 10 essays, The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism, saying that the Lib Dems should adopt a more critical tone towards the way the European Union does things, while remaining pro-European.

The chapter led to Clegg being labelled a fervent moderniser by the media – a tag I find difficult to corroborate because he doesn’t offer much in the way of detail when discussing his politics.

He says the Lib Dems need to be more ambitious, need to have a harder edge, that the party’s policies need to be more thematic, that there is an urgent need to decentralise power in this country – but whenever he gets close to backing a particular policy he pulls back. Take for example his comments on the Lib Dem commitment to a 50 per cent rate of income tax on high earners: “The public tolerance for tax burden has reached its limit. I do not think there is an economic case or political merit in advocating an increase in the overall burden of taxation.” But then he adds: “I’m not going to judge the merits of the 50 per cent tax proposal.”

One gets the feeling that he doesn’t want to say anything that pre-empts the conclusions of the Lib Dem policy review that Charles Kennedy ordered after the general election, when the party won 62 seats, its largest intake since the 1920s, but still failed to live up to many people’s expectations. Nevertheless, it does eventually become apparent that, generally, Clegg is in favour of strong change.

“I’m incredibly impatient for the party,” he says, chomping on his ham and cheese baguette on the train. “If you are a third party that has been out of government for two generations, by definition you have a culture that can be a bit oppositionist, a bit self indulgent, a bit introverted.”

Does he think the Liberal Democrats’ general election campaign was misjudged? “Like the Tories, our campaign was piecemeal. Charles Kennedy has been candid about that. Maybe we need to rediscover the ability to talk in more thematic terms.”

As Clegg prepares to leave the train at Luton, I realise I haven’t asked him an important question: does he want to be leader? Kennedy, who has had a very low media profile since the election, is unlikely to stand down until after the next one, but would Clegg want the job, in theory?

“I’d hate to think that I have to want it just because people suppose I will.”

What does that mean?

“I really don’t want to find myself being boxed into an assumption that I must want it, when it hasn’t arisen and won’t arise for a long time.”

So he doesn’t want it?

“If the opportunity arises and people think that I can do it, I would want to. At the moment, I don’t want to say I want it because other people say I should. Is that an over-convoluted answer?”

Yes. “Hopefully it’s such a complicated answer that you can’t use it.”

16 July 2005
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